Toronto: Meek's Cutoff
Sat Sep 18 2010
Toronto's always been good to me. Previous fests have supplied me with some of my most enriching afternoons at the movies: the Coens' masterfully strange A Serious Man, Lourdes, The Five Obstructions, just to name a few. This year, while the glow of discovery was dimmer, I was knocked out by a couple of Cannes titles: Mike Leigh's nuanced Another Year (a perfect festival experience for me, complete with a purgative tear or two) and Apitchatpong Weerasethakul's ghostly Unclee Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, a humid, strange fantasy. Both are on their way to New York's annual shindig in the coming weeks. Yet these last few days have offered me something no other Toronto has, in eight years of attending—and it might not sound like a gift, but it is. I'm referring to my reaction to Kelly Reichardt's new movie, Meek's Cutoff. A leading light of thoughtful Amerindie filmmaking, Reichardt directed 2006's extraordinary Old Joy, a tale of resigned friendship that changes your whole idea of what movies can do. (Her follow-up, the must-love-dogs Wendy and Lucy, was, to these eyes, a minor stumble.) Naturally, Meek's Cutoff was high on my hot list—it's even a Western, a personal geekzone for yours truly. But I found it stilted and dull. It felt redolent of the worst kind of pretentiousness, complete with sledgehammer subtext and ridiculously incoherent characters. Then, many of my colleagues—including friends whose taste I admire—started saying masterpiece. So I did what any curious, frustrated viewer should do: I saw it again. How nice it would be if, in this point of the story, my mind was completely blown. Nope. I desperately want to understand the critical praise, but I know my instincts are correct—at least they are for me, and that's ignoring the steady stream of walk-outs and midday snorers in Ryerson Theatre. "It's Gerry on the prairie," enthused former TONY critic Mike D'Angelo. Wasn't Gerry already on the prairie?, I asked him. But I know what he means: Meek's Cutoff is, like Gus Van Sant's bone-dry existential comedy, an unusually pared-down quest for the safety of civilization—a survival movie without traditional payoffs, only desperation. The lost Oregon pioneers of Reichardt's 1845 period piece wander around in a scraggly wilderness. But if this is another Gerry, then it's a Gerry filmed in the drab, uninspired tones of pancake-flat 1970s television. (And not by Van Sant's genius cinematographer Harris Savides, who drew out subtle bits of humor.) Meek's Cutoff has to be one of the ugliest Westerns I've ever seen—and I've seen Jonah Hex. Comparisons to oater giants Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher seem utterly wrong to me; those directors situated their complex heroes in equally complex landscapes, not the squarish, bland compositions of Reichardt's flatlands. Moreover, Reichardt is doing something remarkably coy with her camera (it must be intentional), rarely favoring her cast with close-ups. We see folks trudging through rivers in long shots, quietly talking to each other in the distance, turning away from the lens in face-obscuring bonnets and beards. This is a nice touch for a bit, emphasizing pioneer labor. Eventually, though, it gets perverse: It's possible to watch the entire first half hour of Meek's Cutoff and not really know who the main characters are, their names—nothing. This is actually Reichardt's point. "A lot of their themes are completely unrelatable for me," the director recently said of Hollywood Westerns at her Venice press conference. Presumably, one of those themes (or types) is the drawling "Duke" Wayne rough rider that dominates so many traditional horse operas. Indeed, in Meek's Cutoff, it's male ego that gets the whole party into its mess to begin with—the ego of a blustery, showboating guide, Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood, unrecognizable in a bushy beard) who's led them astray. Questioning notions of heroism is one thing—I dig that—but for Reichardt to reject the very grammar that lets us take hold of her movie seems ridiculous. Robert Altman didn't have a problem lending his fatuous Buffalo Bill some close-ups; Meek's Cutoff feels, itself, cut off from the lifeblood of audience identification. Who is this Meek? I'm not saying the movie needs some Leone-esque "beeg eyes," but it feels populated with a swarm of minor characters, and shame on me (I can already hear the cries) for calling these indistinguishable, poorly rendered people minor. Anyway, they're minor until they're not, arbitrarily. A Native American tribesman is captured, frightening most of the group. Wendy and Lucy 's Michelle Williams hijacks the plot, pointing a rifle at Meek. She stands up for the wandering "heathen," a man who might actually lead them to water. (I'm not even going to touch the political allegory.) We know next to nothing about Williams's character, so the change feels random; within a cut or two, she's suddenly a steely protofeminist in a sun bonnet. It's a moment designed for women's-studies theses, and it stinks of a movie trying too hard. Now come the close-ups, Reichardt upending her own visual strategy. Obviously I won't spoil the ending for you. But it was at this point, after enduring 100-plus minutes of odd remoteness, that I threw my hands up in defeat. The final shot, a head-slapper, has to be seen to be believed; even those championing Williams's heroine will have to reconsider what it says about her character's instincts. Meek's Cutoff strikes me as timidity being confused for boldness. Please—I desperately want to understand this movie. My fear is that I understand it too well. Would anyone like to add their thoughts below? I'd love to be persuaded.
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